Tis the season for murder and Agatha Award winning author (for Death of a Cozy Writer) G. M. Malliet brings a new series to life with vicar Max Tudor, a former MI5 agent seeking a different kind of life. The tragic killing of his partner had left him guilty and resulted in a depression, a leave of absence, and finally resignation and the search for something more meaningful. He entered the Anglican Church after schooling at Oxford and seminary training. This backstory fuels Max’s ability to get involved in murder.
In the first installment, Wicked Autumn, Max thinks he’s found the peace and quiet he desires at his post at St. Edwold’s in Nether Monkslip, until murder erupts and spoils any sense of the idyllic village Max thought he’s found.
Wanda Batton-Smythe has led the Nether Monkslip’s Women’s Institute with an iron hand and a shrill voice that shuts out any contenders for her role. Browbeating the residents into performing as she wishes for the annual Harvest Fayre has only increased their general dislike of the formidable woman. When her body is found on the day of the Fayre, any sense of leaving his past behind vanishes for Max, thrust into the middle of distraught parishioners and suspecting what looks like an accident is actually a case of well-planned murder.
DCI Cotton, whom Max knows from the past, quickly ropes Max into helping with the investigation. Although familiar with the petty grievances and animosities of small-town life, Max is thrown by the idea that one of the residents of his lovely English village is capable of murder; yet he is realistic enough to see that there are many villagers who might have wished for Wanda’s demise. The suspects include Lily Iverson, a timid woman who nonetheless owns a local knitting business but often bore the brunt of Wanda’s assaults. There’s the owner of the Cavalier Team Room, Elka Garth, who often felt Wanda’s pressure, especially when it came to donating her services to the Harvest Fayre; and the chef and restaurateur Guy Nicholls, who felt the same pressures. Then there’s Frank Cuthbert, the local historian an author who often clashed with Wanda over his books. And that’s just the start of the list.
As the investigation heats up, readers will meet more villagers, several who will reappear in Malliet’s second book in the series, A Fatal Winter. But not before Max and Cotton team up to unmask a murderer.
In Book Two, winter has come to Nether Monkslip, and finds Max struggling with his Christmas sermon, but even more with the feelings he’s developed for Awena Owen, the New Age goddess who runs a shop in town. What would his bishop have to say about such an alliance? And should he care?
These are Max’s thoughts as he returns to the village after a brief London stay. A chance meeting on an early train between Max and Letitia, Lady Baynard, of nearby Chedrow Castle is soon put out of Max’s thoughts until Cotton calls him late that same night. The DCI has been at Chedrow Castle since earlier in the day, called just after the body of Lord Footrustle, Letitia’s brother Oscar, has been found murdered in his bed.
Only minutes after that call on his way to the castle, a second call had notified Cotton of the finding of a second body in the garden, that of Letitia herself, at first glance of natural causes. But with assorted relatives ensconced for the holidays in an extremely poor excuse for a family a reunion as orchestrated by the fated Oscar, Cotton knows his handful of CID officers, good as they are, won’t be enough to find this wiley killer.
His ace up his sleeve is his good friend Max Tudor, who will be his feet on the ground and his ears to the family. Max is called to the castle by Lamorna, Lady Baynard’s religious grand-daughter, as special advisor to the family on the double funeral to be held. Pastoral duties farmed out, Max leaves for a few days at the castle, and for an experience he’s not soon to forget.
The assorted Footrustle family includes Letitcia’s Baynard side: two sons and the grand-daughter Lamorna, who had been adopted by Letitia’s dead daughter and son-in-law and left for her to raise. But Oscar’s side is well-represented, as he’d been married twice; three assorted children and one ex-wife are in attendance. This eccentric group includes the washed up actress, Lady Jocasta, Oscar’s daughter, and her American husband Simon Jones. Oscar’s ex-wife, Gwynyth Lavener, brings her teenaged children: Alec, Viscount Edenstarted, and his sister, Lady Amanda, two indulged but intelligent youths.
If this sounds like too much Debrett’s for you, Malliet thoughtfully includes a family tree, which you will find yourself consulting until the character’s become firmly rooted in your mind.
Basically a locked room puzzle, Max will eventually figure out who’s behind the deaths, but not before a third murder is committed, in a great twist that readers won’t see coming.
Readers of the Golden Age mysteries will be entertained by this series, which has all the hallmarks of village mysteries: that lovely English setting, a handsome protagonist, and just a hint of romance to round things out. Booklist says: “Malliet has mastered the delights of the cozy mystery so completely that she seems to be channeling Agatha Christie.”